Cars is stuck in the middle of the pack

by Glen Baity

Burnt out on talking-animal movies?

Man, I hear ya. If I see one more cracked-out chipmunk who sounds like a talking head from ‘“I Love the ’80s,’” I’m gonna lose it. It took about 75 years, but talking animals have finally jumped the shark. Blame it on Madagascar ‘— I know I do. Ahead of the curve, as usual, is Pixar, which this summer has decided to put its talking things on wheels. Cars not only features no chatty warthogs, wildebeests or toucans, but there are no animals in the film at all. No humans either.

There are tractors, which raises the first of many questions:

What are they plowing? Who planted it? Who’s going to eat it? Best not to think on it very much, I guess. The only thing you really need to know: When the machines take over, the only sport they’ll be retaining is NASCAR.

And rising to dominance in that sport will be a sleek little candy-apple red coupe named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a vainglorious celebrity of the racetrack. His stubborn, self-centered take on his own success alienates his entire pit crew and any potential friends, so when he competes against Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and The King (Richard Petty) for the coveted Piston Cup, he sets out to do it alone.

While traveling to California for the big event, Lightning is waylaid in the small town of Radiator Springs, a once-kickin’ outpost on Route 66 that has fallen on hard times since the construction of I-40, which siphoned off the stream of motorists who used to regularly blow through its main drag.

Once there, he befriends the amiably dense Mater (Dan ‘“Larry the Cable Guy’” Whitney), runs afoul of Judge Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and flirts with the town attorney, a Porsche named Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). Predictably (though not unpleasantly), Lightning falls in love with the town and the quirky fleet of cars that inhabit it. My girlfriend called the film ‘“Doc Hollywood but with cars,’” a description I couldn’t top if I tried.

The pacing of the film is reminiscent of the studio’s last, The Incredibles, though in a less effective way. Like that film, Cars takes a while to get moving, but where The Incredibles used that slower rhythm to develop its central conflicts (for an animated children’s film, it truly went above and beyond), Cars uses it to’… well, it’s not really clear why it takes so long for this film to do what it does. Cars lies in stasis far over an hour while Lightning meanders around Radiator Springs, learning to be a good person (or car ‘—whatever). This could be the fault of someone on the film’s whopping seven-member writing team, but it’s impossible to say which. In any event, the film could stand to lose a good 15-20 minutes in the town, which serves as its main setting.

Though Cars isn’t bad, it is surely not director John (Toy Story) Lasseter’s best work. Perhaps the strangest thing about it is how much it resembles the lesser of its peers: The pop culture gags this time around, the winking references designed to keep the adults as engaged as the children, are much more abundant in Cars than they are in any previous film from this studio. I think that’s a little troubling. What sets a Pixar film apart from the Shreks of the world is that it doesn’t take the cheap way into its audience’s good graces.

This film doesn’t need a cameo by Dale Earnhart Jr., or Bob Costas, or Jay Leno, and is it really necessary to have Mater throw in a hearty ‘“Git-R-Done’” toward the end? These seemingly harmless bits of cultural flotsam do something a Pixar film has never done, at least not that I can think of ‘— it takes the viewer out of the universe of the movie, and since the Pixar universe is always a fun place to inhabit, that’s about as unwise a move as this film could’ve made. It also doesn’t need every last one of the 5 trillion puns it contains ‘— what happened to Lasseter’s uncanny sense of moderation? In spite of these elements, Cars is a generally fun movie, though I can certainly imagine kids getting bored in the eternity between its two big race scenes. And it probably goes without saying at this point, but visually the film looks amazing. It also carries the same maudlin ‘“things ain’t what they used to be’” theme that underscores pretty much every Pixar film. The audience in these movies is always asked to meditate on the sad fact that kids eventually outgrow their playthings (Toy Story), stop being scared of the Thing in the closet (Monsters, Inc.), strike out on their own (Finding Nemo), and turn into adults who take the interstate instead of the scenic route (Cars). I make that observation with the utmost respect, because those themes, which are usually applied with some restraint and delicacy, make Pixar’s films more heartfelt than those of its contemporaries. But in this latest outing, it seems like the nostalgia is being laid on a little more aggressively than usual. Asking a 7-year-old to contemplate the negative ramifications of interstate commerce strikes me as just a trifle unfair.

I think this is probably the weakest of the studio’s seven films, which still makes it far better than many other films, children’s or otherwise. And it has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, though they’ll take some patience to get to. This little beauty might have some nicks and scratches, but it’ll still get you where you need to go.

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